OUR FINAL STOP IS Piliwa Health Centre on Djaul Island. Getting there involves a one-hour banana boat ride from Lamusmus across the brilliant blue ocean.
We chase a pod of playful dolphins and in turn are pursued by flying fish moving so fast I mistake them for tropical wasps. We zoom past limestone cliffs and across shallow reefs, as the cool ocean spray splashes away the heat of the searing sun.
We are just three hours by sea from Kavieng, yet we may as well be back in Messi or Panaras. Merrilee refers several patients for suspected TB, but it’s difficult to confirm and prescribe treatment because there aren’t any laboratory services. She insists that the health centre help transfer these patients to Kavieng.
The eye nurse Roland sees a nine-year-old schoolboy who’s suffered crossed eyes and refractive errors since birth, but his family has never been able to afford the journey to Kavieng for treatment. A patrol member pays for some glasses.
In a village at the other end of the island, water and sanitation inspector Eremiah deems the murky creek from which everyone collects water – a canoe ride and 30 minutes walk away – as unfit for drinking, but the village’s three small water tanks are inadequate for a population of 200 thirsty people, especially during the dry season.
However there is hope, as patients are diagnosed and treated and leave feeling that the provincial government and outsiders care. There is promise, as health workers are trained on topics of their choice and their morale lifted by the patrol team’s presence.
These integrated health patrols – a unique partnership between the New Ireland Provincial Government and Australian Doctors International – prove what can be achieved by working at the grassroots level with local communities: an integrated health service that is tailored to meet local needs, build capacity, disseminate information and ensure healthier communities.
We return to Kavieng after 11 long days on the road. Our vehicles, once filled with medical equipment and drugs, are now laden with woven baskets of buai, coconuts, bananas, papaya, kaukau, yam and other foodstuffs received as gifts from the villages we have visited.
The local patrol team members are eager to return home and prepare a feast with their families, but I am still savouring my journey to quaint pockets of this evocative island province.
I am still remembering the jungle-backed beaches, warm village hospitality, and wide smiles in the face of adversity. I am still delighting in New Ireland, a place that now feels like an old friend.
First published in Air Niugini’s ‘Paradise’ magazine, December 2012-January 2013